Differences Between Federal and State Prosecutions in New York

A criminal defendant has substantial rights under both state and federal law. The U.S. Constitution establishes certain minimum protections of civil liberties. However, the states are free to enact legislation that provides even greater protection of individual rights. Certain sections of New York’s penal code include protections that exceed the requirements of the federal system.

Crimes can be prosecuted under state or federal law. There is some overlap in the types of crimes prosecuted by states and the federal government, but each system operates independently. Most criminal prosecutions are at the state level, as federal jurisdiction is limited. As a consequence, the state criminal justice system is overburdened and short of resources. Prosecutors, investigators and judges all have heavy caseloads. In addition, the state’s access to special equipment and crime laboratories is limited due to funding constraints. To keep cases moving, state prosecutors are typically more prone to negotiate plea agreements with criminal defendants.

In contrast, federal law enforcement is generally well-funded. Federal authorities have specialized investigative units with access to advanced equipment and crime laboratories. Federal prosecutors have more discretion in the types of cases to pursue and can devote more time and attention to each one. The U.S. Department of Justice provides guidance as to high priority crimes and directs resources to individual offices accordingly. Although plea agreements are available in federal court, they usually are more difficult to come by than at the state level.

Federal criminal procedures are also different. Generally, federal court procedural deadlines are relatively short and inflexible. Because of lighter caseloads, the courts can conduct intensive discovery (evidence production) in a short amount of time. This translates into both sides producing and reviewing large numbers of documents and taking numerous witness statements very quickly. In the federal system, most hearings go forward as planned and trials are more likely to start at their appointed time. In comparison, at the state level, the discovery process is often abbreviated through negotiations. Hearings and even trials are often delayed due to various circumstances.

Sentencing in the New York courts is different from the federal system. At the state level, the prosecution and defense usually negotiate a sentence after conviction. A state judge must approve any sentencing agreement, but most are accepted. In contrast, sentencing in the federal system is controlled by strict guidelines, with departures being granted in defined circumstances. The federal judges have limited flexibility when it comes to sentencing and the defendant must make a strong case for a departure.

The Law Offices of Maurice Verrillo, P.C. in Rochester represents criminal defendants in state and federal court throughout northern upstate New York. If you or a family member have been charged with a federal crime, feel free to contact us online or call 585-563-1134 for a free initial consultation.


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